Baffert has held the Kentucky Derby trophy often (Coady Photography via The Paulick Report)
View From The Eight Pole (Ray Paulick)
If the Churchill Downs ban on Bob Baffert means some of the best 3-year-olds in the country will not be competing in this year’s Kentucky Derby, it may be a hollow victory for the winner
Churchill Downs officials have gone all out to make this year’s 150th running of the Kentucky Derby a special one.
The iconic solid-gold winner’s trophy is all dressed up to commemorate this special renewal with nearly 400 diamonds, rubies and emeralds added to the design.
It’s really something to see.
What’s missing from the Derby trophy is an asterisk.
Bob Baffert, the most successful trainer in the modern era when it comes to the Derby and Triple Crown races, will not be participating for the third consecutive year. For the first time, his owners have opted not to transfer their best 3-year-olds to someone else to train up to the first Saturday in May.
That could mean this year’s Derby may be something of a hollow victory for the winning owner. If you claim to have the best horse, you’ve got to beat the best. That almost certainly won’t be the case if Baffert’s horses sit on the sidelines.
I won’t go into great detail on the long-running drama between Baffert and Churchill Downs Inc. officials that began a week after Medina Spirit won the 2021 Kentucky Derby, giving Baffert – for the moment – his seventh triumph in the race and passing the legendary Ben Jones as all-time leading Derby trainer.
After Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone and Baffert went on an ill-advised media tour proclaiming complete innocence, CDI imposed a two-year ban prohibiting the trainer from participating at any of the company’s racetracks. He also received a 90-day regulatory suspension from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission that was reciprocated in all racing jurisdictions, along with a separate private property ban by the New York Racing Association. Medina Spirit, who would be dead seven months later, was stripped of his Derby victory.
When the CDI banishment was coming to an end, company officials extended it for at least another year, through calendar year 2024.
Meanwhile, Baffert and owner Amr Zedan fought the punishment tooth and nail in the courts. They lost at just about every turn.
At long last, Baffert said “no mas,” throwing in the towel on Jan. 22 with a social media post stating it was time to move on and “positively focus on the present and future that our great sport offers.”
That date, Jan. 22, was exactly one week before horses trained by Baffert would have had to be transferred to another barn in order to be eligible to earn qualifying points and run in the 150th Kentucky Derby. I’m sure the timing wasn’t a coincidence, but more of a Hail Mary pass in hopes that contrition by Baffert might earn a last-minute reprieve from the new rule.
CDI issued a quick response: This changes nothing.
CDI has been moving the goalposts on the punishment, making it more difficult each year for Baffert’s owners to get their horses into the Derby. Essentially, they were told this year, “If you want to run in the Derby, find someone else to train your horses from Jan. 29 until May 4.
The owners all decided to keep their horses with Baffert, and the trainer will undoubtedly be represented by multiple runners in races that offer qualifying points to the Derby for horses not trained by Bob Baffert. If Baffert-trained horses win some of the most important races – the Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, or Blue Grass Stakes, for example – their absence will diminish the field for this 150th Kentucky Derby.
I don’t have a lot of sympathy for either party. In my mind, Baffert is not a paragon of integrity, and I know that this isn’t the first time CDI has bullied someone.
But unless officials at CDI know something about Baffert the rest of us do not, this ongoing retribution is not a good look for Churchill Downs, the 150th running of America’s most famous horse race, or the sport itself.
That’s my view from the eighth pole.